What Child is This?, or, On the Rise of “Baby Jesus”

The renaissance was a time of dramatic shifts in the culture of western Christendom. It was a time of origins, when former patterns of thought and culture faded into the background and modern values began to  appear. This was true in the case of humanism, and it was true in the art it came to influence. Famous paintings of the renaissance document this shift.

One type of painting that came to represent the epitome of renaissance art was the Madonna. We are used to this term, but its historical background is interesting. It comes from the medieval Italian Ma Donna, or “My Lady,” and entered the English lexicon as a specific type of painting depicting Mary holding the infant Jesus in her arms. As such, it is simply the descendant of a long tradition of artistic representation in Christendom dating to the early centuries.

The image of Mary holding Jesus itself came to be standardized not in the medieval or renaissance west, but the Byzantine east, where a range of icon types were developed such as the icon of She Who Points the Way (Hodegetria in Greek). Whereas such earlier depictions of Mary and Jesus were primarily liturgical, however, the renaissance Madonna gave rise to a new conception of the two, one that was increasingly worldly. I commented briefly on this development in an earlier post, and here I would like to take the reflection a step further. 

Art says a great deal about a culture’s values. The art of the renaissance was an expression of the new humanistic values of a western Christendom beginning to liberate itself from the pessimism of the middle ages. Its goal was to affirm and celebrate the human condition in a world that was increasingly seen as bereft of paradise. The late medieval world of western Christendom was a bereaving world, and the optimistic humanism of the renaissance offered consolation. A visual expression of this was the image that came to be known as the Madonna. Tenderly holding her child in her arms, Mary came to represent as much a statement about the value of motherhood and parental devotion as a proclamation of the incarnation of God.

This shift is visible particularly in the image of Jesus. Increasingly, he came to be represented as a charming babe, or “baby.” The fact that the modern English diminutive of babe became the standard term for this image is significant. The personhood of Christ came to express predominantly worldly and even sentimental values.

Beginning with the renaissance biographer Vasari, western views of art history long held that the depiction of Jesus in Byzantine and early medieval iconography represented a deficiency in technical skill and human experience.


Byzantine Icon of Mother of God She Who Points the Way

The man-like “little adult” of the Hodegetria icon was seen as the best an overly ascetical society like early Christendom could do. And after all, since most icons were painted by monks with little or no knowledge of women and children, how could they be expected to capture the appearance of an infant naturalistically?

But that of course had not been the point of traditional Christian iconography of Mary and Jesus. Proclaiming the incarnation, it had insisted that the real humanity of Christ was joined without confusion to his divinity, and that this uniting of the world with heaven was the great hope, and optimism, of the Gospel.

Now, in the renaissance, a marked change occurred. Christ’s divinity, while scrupulously upheld in Roman Catholic and later Protestant doctrine, was slowly erased in art to favor his humanity. As renaissance painters such as Leonardo da Vinci (d. 1519) applied the principles of humanism against the perceived pessimism of the late medieval west, they became increasingly lost in a celebration of the natural world.


Leonardo da Vinci, Litta Madonna

Into this environment the sentimentalized “Baby Jesus” was born. Many painters even went so far as to abandon iconographical decorum by depicting Mary’s child nursing at the breast.

Leonardo was one of them, and his beautiful Litta Madonna is one of the most famous of renaissance paintings. The painting (it is not an icon in the liturgical sense) shows a sleepy-eyed Jesus staring blankly at the viewer. He is completely naked, and powerless. He has no halo. Nor does his mother, who gazes downward serenely in a moment of maternal adoration that is oblivious to any future suffering and need for victory over the brokenness of world.

From this, it was perhaps only a matter of time before the secularized image of Baby Jesus dsc00443_editedbecame almost purely an object of sentiment, worthy of mass reproduction, commercialization, and even banal games of child-rearing.





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